Welcome to World Class: The Shortlist - Central Midfielders

Ali Rampling
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Central midfield is one of the most crucial positions on the football pitch, with matches won and lost according to who comes out on top in the battle in the middle of the park.

Central midfielders come in all different shapes and sizes; from the engine rooms to the metronomes, the box to box to the technicians.

A plethora of top class central midfield talent have graced the football field over the years, from Andres Iniesta to Andrea Pirlo, Paul Scholes to Patrick Vieira - and the current crop aren't too bad either.

As part of 90min's Welcome to World Class series, 90min will attempt to find the five best central midfielders plying their trade today. Below is a list of contenders we consider to be in said world class conversation.


Thiago Alcantara

Thiago is such a watchable player
Thiago is such a watchable player / Michael Regan/Getty Images

The excitement when Thiago Alcantara stepped onto the Stamford Bridge pitch for his hotly anticipated maiden 45 minutes of Premier League football was something else. You simply could not take your eyes off him for the remainder of the match.

Thiago had his talent honed in Barcelona's La Masia academy, and this is instantly apparent in the way he plays. The Liverpool midfielder is mesmeric, with his ruthlessly efficient passing accuracy, razor sharp vision and quick feet.

He came to Liverpool with a lofty reputation - and with good reason. Thiago was the man Pep Guardiola demanded upon taking the Bayern Munich job - and the midfielder would go on to win seven successive Bundesliga titles.


Frenkie de Jong

De Jong is too good for 23
De Jong is too good for 23 / Soccrates Images/Getty Images

He's just 23, but Frenkie de Jong has already been drawing comparisons to Xavi and Andres Iniesta for a good two and a half years.

Despite his tender age, there is a maturity and astuteness to De Jong - potentially thanks to the time he has spent at centre half. The centre back-come-playmaker has an extraordinary reading of the game, vision, intelligence and passing ability.

De Jong is a product of the Willem II youth system, before shooting to global acclaim as part of Ajax's sensational 2018/19 side. Although his football education comes from his native Netherlands, De Jong has traditional 'Barcelona DNA'.


Leon Goretzka

Goretzka is very good at football and also very ripped
Goretzka is very good at football and also very ripped / Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

We're not going to objectify Leon Goretzka.

He's a smart, athletic midfielder with an eye for a pass and seriously have you seen how ripped the man is???

Extraordinary transformation aside, the box to box Bayern Munich midfielder is blessed with superb vision and an eye for goal. He was tipped for big things at Schalke and has blossomed at Bayern - a key cog in their all conquering treble-winning 2019/20 side.


Jordan Henderson

Liverpool are not the same team without Henderson
Liverpool are not the same team without Henderson / Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Jordan Henderson is a US teen movie glow up story in the form of a Sunderland native tearing about the Premier League for Liverpool.

Henderson has been mocked for just about everything during his career - his price tag, his playing ability and even his running style. But no he has blossomed into an irreplaceable piece in one of the Premier League's all-time great teams.

The England midfielder's dynamic energy, determination and athleticism are the perfect fit for Jurgen Klopp's all action pressing style. But for all the work rate, there is real quality on the ball too; Henderson's range of passing and intelligence are not often afforded the credit they deserve.


Mateo Kovacic

Kovacic is fabulous on the ball
Kovacic is fabulous on the ball / John Berry/Getty Images

The Croatia international joined Chelsea from Real Madrid - initially on loan - in 2018. After an unspectacular debut season at Stamford Bridge, Kovacic was the Blues' standout performer during the 2019/20 campaign.

Kovacic is a technician. He has the look of a no nonsense midfielder but plays with the grace of a 2010s Spanish playmaker.

His low centre of gravity and lightening quick feet enable him to wriggle through challenges, and he is at his best when receiving the ball from deep and driving forward. Press him and he'll worm his way past tackle after tackle, sit deep and he'll merrily pick you off with his exquisite passing range.


Toni Kroos

Kroos is the perfect blend of athleticism and technical ability
Kroos is the perfect blend of athleticism and technical ability / Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Toni Kroos is a winning machine.

The man has scooped domestic, European and international honours as part of Bayern Munich's esteemed treble-winning 2012/13 side, before going on to play an integral part in Real Madrid's hat-trick of Champions League triumphs. Oh, and he found the time to win the World Cup in between all of that.

The classy German midfielder's all conquering display against Brazil at the 2014 World Cup during his side's 7-1 rout sums up everything that is sublime about him.

Kroos was everywhere, breaking up play, laying opportunities on for his teammates and finding the net from the edge of the box. This is the Real Madrid midfielder in a nutshell; athleticism and technique in equal measure.


Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

Milinkovic-Savic is a nightmare to play against
Milinkovic-Savic is a nightmare to play against / DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Towering Serbian midfielder Milinkovic-Savic has established himself as one of the finest midfielders in Serie A since moving to Lazio from Genk in 2015.

Standing at 6ft3, the box to box midfielder blends his natural physicality and strength with his attacking flair, subtly and quick feet - which is a pretty frightening combination.

Milinkovic-Savic has lung busting stamina and work rate. Defensively he is tenacious and relentless. And he can't half strike a ball from distance.


Luka Modric

Modric is such a classy player
Modric is such a classy player / DeFodi Images/Getty Images

In the last 12 years, just three men have won the Ballon d'Or: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric. The first two are regarded as the greatest players of their generation, so number three must be pretty special too, right?

The year 2018 was a particularly exceptional one for Modric as he ended Messi and Ronaldo's decade-long grip on world football's most prestigious individual award. Real Madrid won their third successive Champions League title and Croatia reached the World Cup final, with Modric scooping the Golden Ball.

The Real Madrid midfielder makes the simple look artistic; his first touch, his composure, his intricate passing. Modric dictates the tempo of the game and makes it look so very beautiful while he does it.


Saul Niguez

Saul gets absolutely everywhere
Saul gets absolutely everywhere / Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Saul is blessed with that enviable combination of supreme technical ability and sheer athleticism.

Bar a season-long loan at Rayo Vallencano in 2013/14, the Atletico Madrid midfielder is a one club man. He has the grit, graft and engine required to thrive in Diego Simeone's side, coupled with the poise, composure and skill to earn international recognition with Spain. It's a rare combination

Despite his tireless energy and the ridiculous shifts he puts in, Saul has missed just a handful of La Liga games for Atletico over the past five seasons. He is a complete, unique, all-rounder.


Thomas Partey

Arsenal signed Partey on deadline day
Arsenal signed Partey on deadline day / Visionhaus/Getty Images

Partey is one of the game's most complete midfielders. After eight years at Atletico Madrid, he secured a move to Arsenal and naturally attracted comparisons to the great Patrick Vieira.

He does not stop. Partey's engine and boundless energy allow him to effortlessly maraud about the pitch, covering every blade of grass, breaking up play and charging into tackles.

On the ball he's not bad either - he can pick a forward pass, he can drive forward and he can ride tackles. His combative nature coupled with genuine class in possession make Partey such an asset.


Paul Pogba

Pogba has so much talent
Pogba has so much talent / DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Look away now, Graeme Souness.

The Sky Sports pundit will be one of a number of people infuriated by Pogba's inclusion. But the Manchester United midfielder is blessed with all the natural ability in the world. On his day, he is unplayable.

The World Cup winner can strike a ball, pick a pass and win a game at the flick of a switch. When Pogba is in the mood and is marauding forward with the ball at his feet, it is a sight to behold. He is a deadly combination of flair and athleticism.


Marcel Sabitzer

Sabitzer is one of the Bundesliga's best
Sabitzer is one of the Bundesliga's best / DeFodi Images/Getty Images

The Austrian international made his senior international debut at the age of just 18 - and after moving to RB Leipzig in 2014, he has gone on to make waves in the game and earn admirers from well beyond his homeland.

Sabitzer is a jack of all trades. He can press, he can crunch into a tackle, he can pick a pass and he can score a stunning half volley in the Champions League group stages. He ticks a lot of boxes.

He also possesses a mean set piece delivery reminiscent of a certain David Beckham. Sabitzer's ability from dead ball situations means he is building up quite the showman's highlights reel - but this is matched by his work rate, tenacity and willingness to do the dirty work.


Fede Valverde

Valverde is held in high regard at Real
Valverde is held in high regard at Real / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Valverde is already regarded as the future of the Real Madrid midfield. His versatility and quality saw him make 33 La Liga appearances during Real's 2019/20 title winning campaign - at the age of just 21.

Valverde is smart and keeps things simple - he'll keep possession efficiently and move the ball around quickly. There is already such an assuredness to the way in which he plays, from breaking up play to confidently carrying the ball forward.

To give off such an aura and play in such a disciplined role for a club of the stature of Real Madrid at the age of 22 is ridiculous.


Marco Verratti

Verratti is sublime with the ball at his feet
Verratti is sublime with the ball at his feet / Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

The PSG midfielder oozes class.

His outrageous quick feet and close control enable him to wriggle out of the most congested of situations, and his ability to ride a challenge and scurry past a player is proper get you out of your seat kind of football.

For someone so technically gifted, Verratti is also adept at doing the dirty work. He's got an incredible defensive awareness and flies into tackles - and he's won seven Ligue 1 titles in eight years.


Gini Wijnaldum

Wijnaldum was a key part in Liverpool's title winning side
Wijnaldum was a key part in Liverpool's title winning side / Visionhaus/Getty Images

The Liverpool midfielder is one of the most under-appreciated players in the Premier League, largely because he is one of the best at doing the simple things very well.

Wijnaldum has a real elegance about him on the ball, rarely surrendering possession thanks to his ice cool composure. Out of possession, the Dutchman is a terrier, pressing and harrying with his boundless energy - the ultimate Jurgen Klopp player.

Klopp's system demands players to put in one hell of a shift, and Wijnaldum does this and more every time he steps onto the pitch. Despite turning in a weekly relentless performance, he missed just one game during Liverpool's 2019/20 Premier League title winning campaign. Under the radar, understated, world class.


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